Probatio Pennae: The Ad Verecundium Fallacy in Writing


Probatio Pennae: The Ad Verecundiam Fallacy in Writing Jessica Arnold Ohio University

Probatio Pennae: The Ad Verecundium Fallacy in Writing Probatio Pennae: The Ad Verecundiam Fallacy in Writing


Ad Verecundiam, writing that appeals to authority, manifests when a writer argues that a statement or conclusion should be accepted or believed because an authority thinks that it should be accepted or believed. The credibility of a writer largely depends on their expertise and ability to avoid bias in their work. The fallacious appeal to authority occurs when a writer makes suggestions in a text that they are not authorized to make, whether this be that they do not posses the necessary knowledge or are basing said claims on personal attitude or inclination. As human beings we are influenced in our thoughts and actions by all aspects our environment. Our vulnerability leaves us subject to what we are led to believe is politically, socially, and historically correct. In the latter half of the twentieth century, social psychologists began conducting studies that looked to find the source of persuasion in the media and its effectiveness on those who are subject to its exposure. It was found that written forms of media were the most influential when comparing writing to personal conversation, television, and audio communication. When written, the media is read by, and therefor interpreted, by an individual. This interpretation is unique to the individual from whom it was read. The stimulus of this written media, along with other factors that one may be subject to in their environment, allow the meaning of the message to resonate within that individual. Susceptibility to the media’s influence can make one a victim of authority in their society if they are unconscious or negligent of the disposition and censorship existing in their accessible information. This censorship may develop through the discretion of a political leader, an influential activist or advocate, a powerful company, an educator, or even a parent. The harm in the expression of pervasive, conclusive and sometimes antagonistic ideas through writing lies within the potential infringement or implantation of false beliefs into a society of people. This

Probatio Pennae: The Ad Verecundium Fallacy in Writing unfortunate human inadequacy has often been discovered and channeled to render benefits to a


power and has resulted in some of the most unimaginable actions in the history of human beings. The remainder of this text discusses how persuasive writing has most notably aided in the development and escalation of propaganda and the effectiveness of marketing and advertisement strategies. The following will illuminate the danger that lies within accepting and acting on such rhetorical writing strategies. While some writings used by authority are less harmful or notable than others, all are equally manipulative in their intensions. As a member of many discourse communities, it is important for an individual to remain skeptical. A responsible reader must investigate perceived expertise by questioning the scientific consensus within the writing, considering the expertise of the writer, and detecting tendentious conclusions held within the text. Propaganda, one of the most compelling results of writing to authority, by use of powerful written media, has the ability to completely annihilate the integrity and substance of a population. Let us look into the potential harm that it can breed. During World War II, dictator Adolf Hitler used propaganda to influence the German people to develop prejudice against minority groups within Germany resulting in severe marginalization. This was accomplished through biased, untrue claims made in the media, specifically through the creation of posters and texts by people who were not altruistic in their intentions. These individuals produced this media after being given information created by those in power that was not researched and had no evidence supporting the claims. The following passage, by G. Mainfranken (1944), from an article titled, “The Jew Is and Remains Our Greatest Enemy,” comes from a newsletter for leaders of Nazi youth groups for girls, a group described in a way that mirrors a Girl Scout troop. During these years there have always been German people’s comrades who believed they

Probatio Pennae: The Ad Verecundium Fallacy in Writing had to say a good word about the Jews. You may have heard someone or another talk about “decent Jews.” Anyone who does that proves that he has not made the slightest effort to understand the true nature of the Jew. He is nothing but a dangerous parasite


from which we Germans had to free ourselves were we not to perish slowly but surely as a people. The single feeling that must fill each German is not pity for the Jew, but rather thanks for the Führer who saved us from this fate. (4)

This manipulative passage is obvious in its intention. The author is assuming, while failing to include evidence, that all of the Jewish people are harmful and must be treated in a way to preserve the well being of the reader. The prejudice and hatred behind in the passage is quite evident. This passage, while it may seem absurd and completely unbelievable to a reader now, greatly impacted how people thought and acted in Europe in the mid twentieth century. Passages such as this were the small steps that allowed the Nazi party and it’s supporters to commit an act as catastrophic as the holocaust. The power of writing to authority through written propaganda has defaced Europe forever.

Hitler’s intentions for the future of Germany were clear when considering the content of his book Mein Kampf (1925). In it, he specifically states, "Propaganda tries to force a doctrine on the whole people... Propaganda works on the general public from the standpoint of an idea and makes them ripe for the victory of this idea." The following passage from Gustav Straebe’s (1932) article, “Bewährte moderne Propagandamethoden,” or “Proven Modern Methods of Propaganda,” allows insight into the Nazi party’s reflection of their use of ad verecundiam during the election that would result in Hitler’s rise to power.

We reduced our leaflet propaganda in favor of newspaper propaganda in Gau Süd

Probatio Pennae: The Ad Verecundium Fallacy in Writing Hannover-Braunschweig. We delivered an election newspaper to every house in every village, adjusting it to the audience. One version was directed to the rural population, another to industrial districts. During the last ten days of the campaign, we delivered our


Gau newspaper, the “Niedersächische Tageszeitung” to every household in the cities and to the easily reached villages. That allowed us to refute the opponent’s lies each day, and remind readers of our goals and previous accomplishments. Distributing the newspaper to the entire Gau was possible because we had a previously prepared plan that used the newspaper’s existing distribution system.

Another part of newspaper propaganda is supplying the so-called “neutral” press with news and material supporting our views. We were able to provide numerous newspapers in the province with our Gau Süd Hannover-Braunschweig press service. Provincial papers have a difficult time of it. The editors are beginning to see that it is time to adjust to the electoral masses of the largest party. Many gladly accept our material, particularly since they can receive it without cost and ready for printing. Our opponents have always provided “factual” information to so-called “neutral” newspapers as a way of influencing the voters. It is obvious that we too have to use this method of propaganda. (2)

This excerpt clearly defines their tactics of propaganda. Admitting that material distributed during this time was created through malicious intent sufficiently gathers what has been discussed thus far. Written persuasion has been historically effective through propaganda and those who commit such actions are aware and even partake in targeting through, not only distribution, but also content to spread their message to a particular audience. Incorporating the next point of ad verecundiam in advertisement, this next passage from G. Stark’s (1932),

Probatio Pennae: The Ad Verecundium Fallacy in Writing “Modern Political Propaganda,” discusses more of the Nazi Party’s efforts of using propaganda to influence the German people that their plans were what Germany needed to get the country and its people to a better place.


The face of the city, as a center of production and consumption, is marked by advertising. The concentration of many companies leads to intense competition, which is won not necessarily by the firm with the best product, but rather with the best advertising. Poster pillars, newspapers, billboards and so on hammer incessantly on the victim, until finally he bends to the power of the advertising firm and buys. This out-and-out commercial advertising is aimed exclusively at earning money, and appeals only to the billfold. But the most effective advertising is not necessarily for the best product. (2)

In more recent history, propaganda has been utilized by the Heaven’s Gate religious group to attract members. In 1997 thirty-seven of Heaven’s Gate followers committed mass suicide to fulfill the prophecy believed to be true by the propaganda of their leader, Marshall Applewhite. Marshall Applewhite distributed written propaganda through an internet website that was created to develop a gathering of desperate, devoted individuals. This website was used to communicate to the public the cult’s ideas and plans. The cybersect created by Heaven’s Gate resulted in the largest mass suicide in United States history. An excerpt from D. Myers’ (2013) eleventh edition of Social Psychology reasons the following.

Knowing that persuasive power. Like nuclear power, can be harnessed for evil purposes should alert us, as scientists and citizens, to guard against its moral use. But the power itself is neither inherently evil nor inherently good; it is how we use it that determines whether its effect is destructive or constructive. Condemning persuasion because of

Probatio Pennae: The Ad Verecundium Fallacy in Writing deceit is like condemning eating because of gluttony. (257)


Marketing and advertisement strategies are also, often guilty of committing the ad verecundium fallacy. Companies will hire celebrities or commercial actors to endorse a product that they, in reality, do not use or have significant experience with. This marketing approach is very effective. The consumer will observe that a celebrity or attractive person uses the product, and conclude that it must be effective. This attracts us to the page of the magazine or billboard and makes us, whether consciously or subconsciously, consider the product that the individual in the add is so unmindfully referring. The following passage from Patrick J. Hurley’s (2013) A Conscious Introduction to Logic illuminates the consumer’s thought behind advertising containing ad verecundiam.

“We should abolish the death penalty. Many respected people, such as actor Guy Handsome, have publicly stated their opposition to it.” While Guy Handsome may be an authority on matters having to do with acting, there’s no particular reason why anyone should be moved by his political opinions—he is probably no more of an authority on the death penalty than the person writing the paper. (52)

Hurley’s passage supports the fallacy of ad verecundiam, in that; an authoritative individual who makes a claim only has authority in the particular context if they have the expertise to support what they are endorsing. This is supported in Lucille McCarthy’s, (1987) “A Stranger in Strange Lands: A College Student Writing across the Curriculum.” In this passage McCarthy discusses the conditions that play a role in the creation of a textual work. Environment, social surrounding, and knowledge and understanding of the topic influence the success and, therefor, authority of a text. Through observation of a student’s writing of various

Probatio Pennae: The Ad Verecundium Fallacy in Writing topics in various situations, the author could detect the influence of the environment and authority within the classroom and of the writer. The variability in this student’s writing demonstrates that an individual’s authority develops through their environment as well as through knowledge of the topic. This situational determinate might give a text the power of persuasion, as in the case of the Nazi Party’s success, or may result in a weak piece if the writer is not knowledgeable of the topic or if the consumer is aware of misplaced authority. Many consumers and citizens in a government, as noted with propaganda above, will


find validity in the work of an individual or group who have expertise in any field, whether it be on the specific topic of interest or not. Consumers must consider that it may be harmful to take the references of an individual who has no knowledge on the topic. Rightful authority comes from knowledge. This is expanded upon in Penrose and Geisler’s (1994) passage, “Reading and Writing Without Authority.” In this passage, the authors state that experienced readers and writers recognize that texts are authored, there are claims throughout the text, knowledge claims can have a counterargument that must be recognized, and, as conscientious consumers of texts, we must determine the extent of the authority of the writer—if they posses authority at all, that is. The text concludes that the recognition of authority and the reader’s ability to become aware of their place in regard to said authority largely depends on the experience of the individual. The most victimized of ad verecundiam in advertising are children, those who have little understanding of or experience with authority in writing. Countries including Greece, Sweden, and Ireland have developed laws to restrict advertising aspired towards children. These actions are supported by studies incorporated into Myer’s (2013) Social Psychology that have found that, “children under eight years old fail to grasp their [advertisers] persuasive intent and trust advertising rather indiscriminately.” (260) Myers continues with, “Children, it seems, are an

Probatio Pennae: The Ad Verecundium Fallacy in Writing advertiser’s dream: gullible, vulnerable, and an easy sell.” (260) After all, if children are too vulnerable to question the authority of persuasion, how are they not to think and act like advertisers would like them to? Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the reader to consider the authority of the text. One must consider the source of the persuasion and recognize any underlying gains that the writer


might be attempting to endorse. The power of this persuasion when the reader fails to recognize ulterior motives of the writer can be detrimental. The Nazi Party gained national support through propaganda, which in turn allowed them to carry out the Holocaust. On a smaller scale, advertisement has, with incorporation of ad verecundiam, persuaded an audience on false terms. Many who participate in these ads or campaigns are not, themselves, consumers of the product or idea. Probatio pennae, a Latin term, when translated means, “testing of the pen.” Humanity and the specific discourse communities that we inhabit have notably pushed falsehoods in persuasive writing to an outrageous extent. It is important that, as susceptible beings, we recognize the power of misplaced authority when considering media, politics, advertising, and what our children are exposed to. By becoming aware of these authorities and their testing of the pen, we hold the understanding necessary to overcome powers with malicious or insincere intent.

Probatio Pennae: The Ad Verecundium Fallacy in Writing Works Cited Hitler, A., & Manheim, R. (1925). Mein kampf. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.


Hurley, P. J. (2013). A concise introduction to logic (10th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education. Mainfranken, G. (1944). “Führerinnendienst des bundes deutscher mädel in der Hitler-jugend.” Newsletter for Leaders of Nazi Youth Groups for Girls. Retrieved from McCarthy, L. P. (1987). “A stranger in strange lands: A college student writing across the curriculum.” In E. Wardle and Doug Downs (Eds.), Writing About Writing (pp. 667-695). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s. Myers, D. G. (2013). Social psychology (11th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. Penrose, A. M. & Geisler, C. (1994). “Reading and writing without authority.” In E. Wardle and Doug Downs (Eds.), Writing About Writing (pp.602-617). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s. Stark, G. (1932). “Bewährte moderne propagandamethoden,” Unser Wille und Weg, 2, 230-233. Retrieved from Stürmer, D. (1933). “Die geheimpläne gegen deutschland enthüllt.” Pamphlet released soon after Hitler came to power. Retrieved from

Probatio Pennae: The Ad Verecundium Fallacy in Writing


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